The tweet at the bottom got me looking for longer videos of this mesmerizing behavior, and I found one (from BBC Earth) on YouTube. The coordinated wing displays are said to deter predators, and I can’t think of any other reason for it, but I wondered if it there really were data showing that it has this effect. This PLOS One paper, however, shows that the shimmering effect of coordinated wing-waving really does deter wasps from picking honeybees out of the mass on the nest.
Another problem is how the bees manage to synchronize their movements so rapidly. In birds like starlings, which also move and change direction rapidly in similar “waves” during their murmutations, it’s been shown that this movement requires each bird to pay attention to and emulate the movements of six or seven neighboring birds. (Following one neighbor won’t enable such rapid changes.) I’ve put a video of a starling murmuration below.
Regardless, it’s a stunning and unexpected behavior.
I describe other ways that Asian honeybees combat giant predatory wasps at the beginning of the “natural selection” chapter in Why Evolution is True.
The tweet was found by Matthew:
Giant honeybees nest in the open and have evolved a plethora of defence behaviors. Against predatory wasps, including hornets, they display highly coordinated Mexican wave-like cascades termed ‘shimmering’ https://t.co/fa47JAiK37 [gif: https://t.co/SFEdEfzyw5] pic.twitter.com/L8otqLVEBS
— Massimo (@Rainmaker1973) January 12, 2020
Check out the coordinated movements of this flock of starlings in a murmuration: